On June 8, 2001, soprano Angela Gheorghiu gave a sold-out recital at Covent Garden, which was recorded by EMI on audio and video in cooperation with the BBC. The concert is divided equally between arias familiar to her many admirers and items that she has rarely or never recorded previously - some a 'preview' of upcoming work with the Royal Opera House. In addition to possessing an extraordinary voice, Gheorghiu is one of the most intense and expressive singers we have today, and this comes through here even if the CD itself isn't an ideal presentation of her gifts.
Let us get the negatives out of the way first. At 51 minutes, the program is far too short. Obviously, the concert itself was longer but the BBC apparently wanted to broadcast only an hour. Still, even if an actual television broadcast has to be truncated, a CD can hold at least another 20 minutes of music. None of Gheorghiu's material was cut, but I'm sure she would have done more singing if there wasn't the BBC's restriction. Also the editing makes the applause seem intrusive and artificial instead of having the true ebb and flow of a live performance. The absence of Verdi is a surprise as well as a disappointment. And yes, there are several moments of suspect intonation, muddy tone, and other lapses that probably wouldn't have happened in the studio. This is quite noticeable in 'Lascia ch'io pianga', which isn't really a good fit for Gheorghiu despite her intensity and melancholy. I am willing to give her another chance with this repertory, though; no less a Handelian than Mark Minkowski wanted her to record Cleopatra.
Gheorghiu is on surer ground with Mozart. In 'Porgi amor' Countess Almaviva's suffering and humanity are palpable, and her handling of the phrase 'O rendentimi tesoro' is particularly striking. A pity she doesn't want to do the role on stage; at the very least I hope she records 'Dove sono'.
It is of course the great ladies of 19th and 20th century French and Italian opera where Gheorghiu truly comes into her own. She has few equals and no superiors in these roles. Buoyed by the energy of a live performance, 'Adieu, notre petite table' is absolutely heartwrenching and perhaps even better than on her complete recording of 'Manon'. She is equally splendid in portraying Louise's ecstasy, and this is a role I want to hear her sing in its entirety. Of course, the CD is worth buying for the Puccini selections alone. What makes Gheorghiu a truly great singer of Puccini is that in her hands his heroines are hardly 'little women'. In 'Tu che di gel sei cinta', we hear all of Liu's love, courage, defiance and sorrow. 'Un bel di' is glorious - Butterfly could have been written especially for her! Here is a wealth of word-painting, gorgeous phrasing, ecstatic climaxes, longing, giddiness, mischief and heroic resolve. What a pity that she keeps putting off recording the role in its entirety. Her Adriana Lecouvreur is very promising, and it is a treat to hear the aria sung by a beautiful young voice instead of a diva past her prime. I believe she will sing the entire role at Covent Garden in Fall 2003.
As the CD 'Casta Diva' was released several days before this concert, it was inevitable that Gheorghiu would sing the title track. Despite minor glitches, this reading is also very impressive. As in the studio recording, it is a genuine prayer, contrasting the priestess' desire for peace and the woman's desire for her lover. This opera is also a strong possibility for her at Covent Garden, probably around 2006.
We then have three encores. Unfortunately, I have an aversion to 'O mio babbino caro' that not even Gheorghiu can overcome, but I suspect few people reading this share my opinion of this aria. In keeping with her desire to bring Romanian material to Western audiences, which I heartily approve of, she then sings a delightful folk aria from Tiberiu Brudiceanu's 'La Seceris' (The Harvest), a classic in Romania. This is also worth buying the CD for. Unlike just about everybody else, I adored her 'I Could have Danced All Night'. I think that considering how beloved Gheorghiu is in Britain it's about time she sang something 'British' (albeit by an American composer), even if she could use the services of Henry Higgins! I note with amusement that her pronounciation of the word 'dance' vacillates between the British and the American...
Ion Marin conducts the Covent Garden orchestra solidly and gives Gheorghiu decent support, but she has worked with many better conductors. Since all the purely orchestral material was cut, including a take on themes from 'Un Ballo in Maschera' by Johann Strauss that I would have liked to have heard, we may have missed Marin's chance to shine. Admittedly, his whole heart is in the Romanian piece.
British critic George Hall contributes a respectful and admiring essay on Gheorghiu's career and this concert. We get full texts and translations of all selections and several photos of Gheorghiu at the concert. I actually would have preferred that one of these grace the cover instead of her admittedly striking black-and white pose as a 1940s movie star (Rita Hayworth?).
If you have access to a DVD player (I do not as yet), you might want to rent or buy the DVD of this concert before you buy the CD. I have not seen it, but in addition to having a visual document of Gheorghiu's expressive face and stage presence, the DVD has bonus material of an interview and a photo gallery (and, unfortunately, a dreadful 'music video' of 'Casta Diva'). In the meantime, despite its flaws, this CD is a fine document of what must have been a memorable evening.